Confessions on the toll of “Wokeness”
In the last several years, I’ve noticed a shift in my heart.
The ever-encompassing force of social media, the increased access to (mostly terrible) news, the rise of the #blacklivesmatter movement, growing resistance against police brutality, and the continued backlash against 45’s administration have led to the rise of the culture of “wokeness.”
The concept of social consciousness and being awake to our nation’s brutal history and racist realities, has always existed. Both POC and allies throughout our nation’s history have fought back against white supremacy, called for “eyes open” to the injustices happening around them, and tried to discern truth from illusion when it comes to the nation’s legacy of harm towards people on the margins. Artists, activists, advocates, and allies have, from our country’s inception, always found ways to speak prophetically about both the way the world really is, and how it could be. For these folks, staying woke wasn’t about being trendy. It was about survival.
Yet in more recent years, the language of “wokeness” has become more mainstream, creating both helpful and harmful ripple effects.
On one hand, the rising mindfulness around “staying woke” has pushed people to think critically, to be conscious of racial and social justice, and challenges the status quo. It has encouraged people to raise their voice and fight the historic silencing of voices on the margins. It has catalyzed greater movements of lament and even repentance and reparation in particular communities. Without the call to “stay woke,” our world would never change. Our nation’s reality, and long history of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and colonialism, would merely be seem as “normal” and not something to be challenged or transformed.
On the other hand, I have personally seen how the concept of “wokeness” has become a mechanism for judgment and condemnation, rather than true transformation. I’ve seen conference speakers immediately be judged for how “woke” they are, and be either praised or dismissed simply on the rhetoric that they employ. I’ve seen friends of mine be silenced and even be treated as “beyond redemption” when they made a statement or did something that made them fail the “wokeness” litmus test. I’ve seen an increased value on saying the right things and using politically correct language, and less value on living with faithfulness and integrity over the long haul. I’ve seen the erasure of spaces to make mistakes and to learn from them. I’ve seen the development of echo-chambers, as people refuse to hear the perspectives of those who aren’t woke enough to speak into their lives.
The pressure to prove one’s one wokeness has often overshadowed the truth that we are constantly in a process of becoming more and more awake. Being “woke” has become an image marker more than a character marker.
On a personal level, the constant pressure to “stay woke” has been taxing. As an Asian American and a Christian, especially one living in the Bay Area, there are undeniable temptations to be lulled to “sleep” by the comforts of the American Dream. There are forces that would make it easy for me to ignore the pain and the grief of those around me. There are many ways that my own privilege and even my own participation in systems of oppression have caused me both to feel guilty and to feel illegitimate in conversations about race or justice. And quite honestly, I have felt the need to prove my own “wokeness” -both for my own soul, but more often for my own reputation.
If I am honest, striving to constantly pass the wokeness litmus test, especially in the Bay Area, has invoked the following in my own life:
·It has pushed me to be inauthentic. At times, the desire to seem “woke enough” in particular communities has pushed me to embrace a false self. I’ve had to pretend to know things I didn’t know. I had to say things that I knew I wasn’t fully living out with integrity. I’ve had to act in ways that didn’t feel truly like myself.
As a 3 on the Enneagram, I am very driven by the need to appear a certain way in different contexts. And I know that my own fear- of rejection, of being seen as the “not woke enough Asian girl,” have pushed me to live inauthentically at times. It has made me scared to speak up about my own inadequacies, or the areas where I need to learn or grow more.
This grieves me, because so much of being awake is about being truthful about what really is. And somehow, I haven’t felt the space to be truthful, even about my own self. It has made me constantly fight or my own legitimacy rather than be vulnerable who I truly am.
· It has caused me to judge others and forget their humanity. While we are all on our own journeys of growing in consciousness, I believe that the pressures of “woke” culture have often caused me to make blanket judgments about people, ignoring their own humanity and their own need for process. Certain words or phrases would trigger reactions in me, about where somebody stood on the “wokeness” spectrum, and I would let these moments of judgment dictate how I viewed their entire personhood. This has been especially true in Asian American circles, as I have been more quick to judge my own people. I have been more concerned about speaking truth to others, than choosing to love them.
This of course is not to say that loving others doesn’t sometimes include rebuke, or repentance. It is also not to make light of the fact that words and actions have very dire consequences that do cause deep pain and even trauma. I do not dismiss this pain, and the reality that being “asleep” can be harmful. And I do acknowledge that sometimes, in the case of continued abuse and harm, choosing to love yourself by cutting off a relationship might become necessary.
However, my judgements upon people based on whether they have passed my own “wokeness litmus test” have too often become judgments on their entire worth and character rather than just their actions. This sprit of judgment has moved me away from the realities of perseverance, grace, and mutual learning that happens in relationships. It’s made me position myself as an “expert” and not a co-learner.
To believe or act as if somebody has zero to offer me, simply because they don’t seem “woke” enough, is also an unfair and unjust form of domination. And I hope that I will, as far as it is possible, keep pathways to relationship open for people, wherever they are on their journey.
· It has resulted in being overwhelmed by the news. Sometimes, the unending torrent of terrible news feels like something I must simply endure to stay woke. I feel like if I just close my eyes for a second, or choose to take a “nap” from the news cycle, that I’m missing out, ignorant, and uneducated. I feel pressure to stay up-to-date on everything, lest I somehow imply that I don’t care- about black lives, about immigrants, about Syrians, about the LGTB community, etc.
The reality is, technology has pushed us to believe that we can live without limits. But we, as humans, were made to be finite creatures. We were never meant to know everything or solve every problem, or be everywhere in the world. And the oversaturation of information, as well as the need to constantly stay “woke,” has often made me feel more paralyzed than anything else. I often feel that by simply “knowing” something, I’m actually doing something, and I fail to take other steps in response to what I’m hearing.
I want to be clear that these personal struggles do not negate the need for people to truly become awakened to see our nation’s history and longstanding marriage with white supremacy clearly. The more that people continue to live “asleep” to the realities of violence, brutality, injustice, and racism in our country, the more that marginalized communities will continue to bear burdens, to suffer oppression, and have to fight injustice alone. And I hope that these confessions do not negate the fact that “wokeness” is more than just a social trend or a fad, but a way of living and being that is necessary for many to stay alive and breathing in our world without losing their souls.
But I am praying for myself, that Jesus would continue to teach me how to make room for process, and to always build the foundations for change upon love.
Ephesians 5, which contains the famous verse “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” also BEGINS with these words: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children, and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”
I hope and pray that in my life, I would continue to cultivate both a spirit of being awake, as well as a spirit of love. Because to be woke without being loving simply tears down, trying to combat being dominated by dominating others. But being loving without being woke is just empty sentiment, based upon illusions rather than truth. To be woke AND to be loving, is to be pulled out of darkness and to see reality as it is, but to also commit to others in relationships of mutual submission and sacrifice.
May I continue to “stay woke.” But may I also, always, choose love.